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Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

California; Metro Desk

The Region Water Reclamation Project to Filter Drugs, Pathogens Infrastructure:
Under Orange County's $600-million plan, extra levels of treatment will remove unmetabolized pills and potions flushed down toilets.
SEEMA MEHTA TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Orange County embarks on one of the nation's largest water reclamation projects, local officials are taking steps to ensure that in turning sewage into drinking water, all pathogens and any residue of pharmaceutical drugs are eliminated.

The county water district's ambitious $600-million plan will thoroughly treat millions of gallons of sewage to kill viruses, bacteria and other disease- causing agents. It also will subject treated waste water to extra levels of treatment to ensure that the cocktail of unmetabolized pills and potions flushed down area toilets are neutralized.

The extra measures for pharmaceutical drugs were included to protect public health as well as to answer consumer concerns that have scuttled similar reclamation projects elsewhere in Southern California, Orange County water officials said.

"Our ground water replenishment system will include microfiltration, reverse osmosis and [ultraviolet] disinfection, and that should handle any pharmaceutical compounds," said Ron Wildermuth, spokesman for the Orange County Water District. "We're very confident that [these technologies] can take the pharmaceuticals out."

Recycled water is used across the nation for various purposes, from making newsprint to watering freeway landscaping to making snow for ski slopes. In 2000, the State Water Resources Control Board estimated that 401,910 acre-feet of reclaimed water was used in the California. Nearly half is used to water crops.

By turning sewage into beverage, Orange County will join a growing number of communities across California that are trying to reduce their dependency on pricey--and sometimes uncertain--imported water by creating their own supply.

In parts of Los Angeles County, the ground water has been recharged for decades using treated waste water. Still, some recent plans to turn sewage into drinking water have met considerable opposition. In 1996, a plan to use treated waste water to replenish a San Gabriel Valley aquifer had to be halved--and avoid a Miller Brewing Co. plant--to move forward.

Fear of contamination by pharmaceuticals and other chemicals killed proposed reclamation projects elsewhere, including a $100-million plan in San Diego County.

Up to 90% of Antibiotics Enter Water Supply

Local officials say their project, which will use highly treated sewage to recharge the ground water, will use state-of-the-art techniques that remove birth control pills, cholesterol-lowering medication, antidepressants and other drugs that have become mainstays of modern life.

Americans are taking more antibiotics today than ever before. In 1998, physicians wrote 1.9 billion prescriptions, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Experts say that 30% to 90% of antibiotics administered to humans and animals are excreted.

Sewage, which now is moderately treated and sent out to sea, instead will be put through microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light treatments at a Fountain Valley plant, a process expected to result in cleaner water than what flows out of most faucets now.

Reverse osmosis, which forces water through membranes with tiny pores, is a highly regarded form of treatment. Several scientists said it can eliminate any trace of pharmaceuticals.

That highly treated waste water then will be piped along the Santa Ana River to holding ponds in Anaheim, where it will percolate into a large aquifer. About two years later, the water will be pumped out of the ground, chlorinated and sent to homes and businesses in the northern and central parts of the county.

"There's no data indicating there's any known human health risk," said Greg Woodside, a researcher with the water district.

"My personal opinion is that human exposure isn't really the issue here," said Christian Daughton, chief of the environmental chemistry branch at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Exposure Research Laboratory in Las Vegas. While the primary impact is on marine life exposed to such pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment, Daughton said, "everything's interrelated. It's hard to predict what the ramifications could be."

Studies have shown that drugs already are getting into the environment--a British study in the 1980s showed that there were more than 170 drugs, from aspirin to morphine derivatives, flowing down the River Lea in northwest London. Some scientists theorize that the drugs may be contributing to declining sperm counts in parts of Europe. Evidence of the impact on wildlife already is abundant.

Anglers catching hermaphroditic fish led to some of the first European studies, which found that excreted hormones from birth-control pills feminized male rainbow trout in the United Kingdom. A later study showed the same thing had happened to feral carp in Lake Mead, Nev.

Prozac makes shellfish spawn too early, while another type of antidepressant has the opposite effect, making them spawn too late.

Sea squirts exposed to blood-pressure-lowering medication have lower sperm counts.

Water and sanitation officials are quick to point out that all water is actually recycled water. The same water that flowed at the time of the dinosaurs is sipped today.

The Orange County reclamation project just hastens the transformation from waste water to drinking water. The project stems from the county's water needs for a growing population as the state's share of Colorado River water declines. By 2004, the first phase of the project will create enough drinking water to serve 140,000 families of four for a year.

Orange County residents already drink treated sewage. The Santa Ana River, which recharges the large aquifer that provides much of the drinking water to northern and central ground water, is a mix of treated sewage from Riverside and San Bernardino counties and dairy and storm water runoff.

As part of a study that began in 1994, the Orange County Water District has tested the Santa Ana River water for pharmaceuticals. Low levels of ibuprofen, naproxen, carbamazepine and estradiol were found near a sewage treatment plant that discharges into the river upstream. But testing downstream, before the river recharges the ground water, found no detectable amounts. Stanford University scientists theorize that the drugs degraded through natural processes such as exposure to sunlight.

Research in Germany and Arizona, and by the Western Basin Municipal District in Los Angeles County, indicates that reverse osmosis removes pharmaceuticals down to undetectable levels.

David Schubert, a researcher with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, said that although reverse osmosis is a great treatment process, scientists still need to study whether long-term exposure to minute levels of pharmaceuticals in the environment poses a risk.

"The more we depend on recycled water, the higher the exposure," Schubert said. "You have to be as careful as you can."


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